The primary goal in the veterinary community has been to keep aging dogs healthy from the neck down -- weight control, management of arthritic conditions, and preventing major organ failure are the three main areas of focus.
Increasingly, however, pet owners and veterinarians are realizing the need to help animals not only stay physically healthy, but also maintain good brain function during their senior years.
The bond people feel with their pets is emotional as well as behavioral. Pet owners want to preserve the mental sharpness of their companion animals for as long as possible.
As people grow ever more attached to their furry, four-legged family members, the less appropriate it is to follow old patterns of pet care.
Until recently, many pet owners and veterinarians accepted euthanasia as the only option for an elderly animal showing signs of mental decline.
Times have changed. Today's pet owners are interested in caring for their animals into old age, just as they would a parent or other elderly family member.
This evolving attitude toward keeping pets in good physical and mental shape as they age fits perfectly with my approach as a proactive veterinarian.
I see my job as not only to cure illness, but more importantly, to help pet owners maintain the health and vitality of their companion animals for a lifetime.
Is Your Dog Showing Signs of an Aging Brain?
Mental decline in an older dog is referred to as canine cognitive dysfunction (CD), also known as cognitive dysfunction syndrome. The five most common symptoms of CD are:
- Increased total amount of sleep during a 24-hour period
- Decreased attention to surroundings, disinterest, apathy
- Decreased purposeful activity
- Loss of formerly acquired knowledge, which includes housebreaking
- Intermittent anxiety expressed through apprehension, panting, moaning, shivering
Other signs of mental decline include failure to respond to commands and/or difficulty hearing, inability to recognize familiar people, and difficulty navigating the environment.
About a quarter of all dogs 10 years and older show signs of brain aging, and over 60 percent of dogs have symptoms by the age of 15.
However, dogs as young as six can begin to experience mental decline, so if your pet is around that age and is showing one or more symptoms of CD, don't rule out an age-related problem. In a relatively young dog, it's especially important to investigate for an underlying illness or disease before making a diagnosis of age-related cognitive decline.
Causes of Age-Related Mental Decline
There are three main contributors to the changes in an aging brain that cause a gradual impairment in cognitive functioning: oxidative stress from free radical damage, formation of lesions on the brain, and alterations in oxygen and energy availability
Merriam-Webster Medical Dictionary defines oxidative stress as "physiological stress on the body that is caused by the cumulative damage done by free radicals inadequately neutralized by antioxidants and that is held to be associated with aging."
Free radicals are unstable molecules with an uneven number of electrons. They travel around your dog's body looking to bond with stable molecules in order to steal an electron and stabilize themselves. When they are successful, they create new unstable molecules with uneven numbers of electrons. The result is oxidative stress.
The brain is thought to be more sensitive to the effects of oxidation than other tissues of the body. The damage to your dog's brain caused by oxidative stress can cause a decrease in cognition as well as degenerative nerve disease similar to, for example, Alzheimer's disease in humans.
The aging process also involves the accumulation of beta amyloid deposits on the brain. These deposits consist of nerve-damaging protein that forms plaque. This "senile plaque" build up interferes with the transmission of signals from the brain.
Top Tips for Keeping Your Dog Sharp Through the Years
- The foundation for good health and vitality for pets of any age is a nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate diet. The food your dog eats either builds up or tears down his health.
His body needs an ideal energy source to promote the processes of metabolism, growth and healing. That perfect fuel is a healthy variety of fresh, living food suitable for your carnivorous canine.
Recipes like those found in my book, Real Food for Healthy Dogs and Cats, insure your dog is getting plenty of antioxidants in her meals. Antioxidants destroy free radicals before they harm healthy cells.
- Enriching your dog's environment with regular exercise, mental stimulation and socialization with other pets and people is a crucial factor in keeping your pooch mentally sharp.
In a two-year study done with senior beagles, researchers found dogs that engaged in regular physical exercise, playtime with other pups and stimulating toys, did better on cognitive tests and learning new tasks than their less active counterparts.
- Giving your dog a SAMe (S-adenosylmethionine) supplement is a safe and very effective way to stall or improve mental decline. In one recent study, dogs with age-related cognitive decline given a SAMe supplement for eight weeks showed a 50 percent reduction in mental impairment.
Consult your pet's veterinarian for the right dose size for your dog.
- Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) have been shown to improve brain energy metabolism and decrease the amyloid protein buildup that results in brain lesions in older dogs. Coconut oil is a rich source of MCTs. I recommend 1/4 teaspoon for every 10 pounds of body weight twice daily for basic MCT support.
- Other supplements to consider are resveratrol, which protects against free radical damage and beta-amyloid deposits, ginkgo biloba, and phosphatidylserine – a nutritional supplement that can inhibit age-related cognitive deficits. Again, I recommend you consult a holistic veterinarian for dosing guidance.
- Keep your dog at a healthy size – overweight dogs are at significant increased risk for disease as they age.
- Maintain your dog's dental health.
- I recommend twice-yearly vet visits for pets no matter the age, but this becomes even more important in an animal getting up in years. Keeping abreast of your dog's physical and mental changes as she ages is the best way to catch any disease process early. Ask your vet to perform a blood test to check your dog's internal organ health to make sure you are identifying possible issues early on.